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The Obscure Art of Film Sound: Part 1(sound designing tips)

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post production

The Obscure Art of Film Sound: Part 1(sound designing tips)

You are in the theatre. The light goes off and stunning visuals comes up on the big screen. Your favorite actors’ faces floats on the screen. But, wait, something’s wrong, there is no Sound to sync with the visuals. Suddenly the sound comes but only dialogues with no other sounds. You still can’t enjoy the film because the sound just doesn’t feel right. It’s sterile and mechanical. Only in these situations you realize how important Sound is. Otherwise Sound is taken as granted.

We gestate in Sound, and are born into SightCinema gestated in Sight, and was born into Sound.

-Walter Murch, Award Winning Film Editor & Sound Designer.

People generally talk about the plot, acting, cinematography and music after watching a film. Even the professional reviews are about these aspects. Rarely, someone talks about one of the vital aspect of films- “Sound Design”. The importance of Sound can only be felt when there is no Sound or Bad Sound to complement the corresponding visuals. Watch this Short Video to know how Sound Quality affects the Visuals-

Sound works on our sub-conscious level and we generally don’t pay close attention to the Sound of a film, but Sound is still working on our sub-conscious giving the visuals a sense of Space. There’s no denying that Films are predominantly a visual medium but the Synchronization of the Visuals and Sounds makes it seem closer to reality. Even the so-called “Silent Filmswere not completely silent. There was music to complement the visuals. Since recording wasn’t invented, Live Musicians played the pre-composed score at the theater.

Sound came in the Mainstream Industry in the year 1927 with the Hollywood film “The Jazz Singer. Many people thought Sound Films were just gimmick and is just a passing phase for the industry. But, obviously they were wrong, Sound recording and reproduction proved to be one the greatest invention for the Film World. In the initial years, Film Sound meant only recorded dialogues and music. But, later inventions and developments in Sound provided the filmmakers a creative tool to experiment with. Ambient Sounds, Foley Sound and Special Sound Effects made the Film Viewing Experience more thrilling and closer to reality. Inspired by The Jazz Singer, an Indian by the name of Ardeshir Irani made India’s first sound film “Alam Ara (1931). The film was a blockbuster hit. Sound Films reciprocated its phenomenal success in Indian Industry also.

Sound plays a much more mature role now than it did in the 30s. It plays an inseparable part of Cinema and contributes a major part in shaping the overall experience of the film. There are various components that build the Soundscape of a film.

The major components are-

  1. Dialogues This is obviously the most important component. Clean dialogues are a must for any film production. A slight glitch in the dialogues can ruin our film viewing experience. Dialogues now-a-days are recorded during the filming with high quality microphones on location. This is called Sync-Sound. But, many films with limited budget rely on dubbing the dialogues later in the post production stage. This process of Dubbing is called ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement).

2. Foley Sound Foley sounds are the everyday sounds that are reproduced in the studio. Foley include footstep sounds, door handling sounds, breaking glass sounds, etc. These sounds cannot be recorded in high quality during the filming on location hence they are recorded during the post-production stage in a specialized studio to match the visuals. Jack Donovan Foley developed this technique and the term Foley is coined after his name.

3. Ambient Sounds- Ambient Sounds means the Sounds other than the dialogues that are used to give a sense of space to the viewer. The sounds include sounds specific to the location the scene is based. So, if the scene is happening in a city street, sounds of traffic, cacophony of humans can be used. Also, it depends on the country and period of the scene. For example, you can hear specific sounds like barking dogs or mooing cows in an Indian Marketplace but you can’t hear them in a New York marketplace. Ambient Sounds is a very creative area for the Sound Technicians and a lot of research is done to design these sounds.

4. Music- Music is another important component of Film sound. Though Music is composed by professional composers, the overall Sound of it is shaped by Sound Engineers. They make sure it blends well with other Sounds in the film.

5. Special Sound Effects Some films needs Special Sound Effects that are created by Sound Effects Designers completely from scratch. For example, the sounds of the Dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, or the Sounds of Spaceships, light saber, robots, etc in Star Wars. Special Sound FX has great impact in the overall experience of the film especially Science Fiction and Fantasy films where many Sounds needs to be produced from imagination.

A typical sound team for a decent film production consists of at least 10-15 trained Sound Technicians who work on the various stages of production. In the next article, we will explore what different Sound Technicians do.


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Dibakar is a keen observer of Music and films. He reads and writes about films and is also interested in composing instrumental Music. He has a knack of researching about anything that interests him. Usual talks of him are mostly about the contemporary cinema and its analysis. Dibakar is a graduate, specialized in the field of computer Application.

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